Valentines day anthology.., p.12

Valentine's Day Anthology: Hearts and Handcuffs, page 12

 

Valentine's Day Anthology: Hearts and Handcuffs
 


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  “Uh…”

  “Yes!” Janine wrapped her arms around Ben’s neck. “It was so beautiful and sweet and tender.”

  Cupid rested his chin on his hand, speaking quietly to his mother. “I’ll bet Adam and Carly’s first kiss isn’t sweet and tender.”

  Val’s heart screeched to a halt. She squatted next to Cupid. “When are they going to eat the strawberry?”

  “At her place after dinner. They’re going to decide which place to live.”

  “Oh, good. At least they won’t be in public.”

  Cupid nodded. “Mm-hmm, true dat.”

  Ben cleared his throat. “So, uh, I just wanted to come by and thank you for everything you did for me. I know I didn’t want to listen to you, but I appreciate you taking your time to help me.”

  “It’s our pleasure,” Tiny said, smiling at Val. He turned back to Ben. “This is what we do best, bring loving couples together. We know you’ll be just as happy as our little family.”

  Ben kissed Janine lightly. “That would be amazing.”

  Tiny waved his hands toward the sidewalk. “Now you two get going or you’ll be late for the theater.”

  “How do you know we’re going to the theater?”

  Tiny sighed. “You’re really slow at this, aren’t you?”

  With a deep rumble of laughter, Ben pulled Janine down the walk. “Thank you again! I’ll never forget this day as long as I live.”

  “I know. But your five children won’t believe you when you tell the story.”

  Ben whipped around. “Five?”

  Tiny’s eyes went wide. “Oops. Never mind. Just go have a nice time.”

  “No, really. Tell me how that happens.”

  “Well, you know, it goes like…” Tiny flipped his hands. “And then…”

  “No, not that. How do we get five?”

  “Well, when they come in multiples both times—”

  Ben stumbled backwards, clutching his chest. “What?”

  Eyes set on Tiny, Ellie leaned toward Ben and whispered, “What’s he taking about?”

  With an assuring nod, Tiny held his hand in the air. “It’ll be fine, trust me.”

  Val went around the cart and took Tiny’s hand, waving cheerfully at Ben and Janine. “Toodles!”

  When no humans were in sight, Cupid slipped his jacket off and floated out of his stroller, his transparent wings fluttering softly as he hovered near his parents. “Mom, how’s Mission Ellie going?” He descended to the ground where he grew into a body more that of a twenty-year-old. His golden hair shimmered and his sharp blue eyes shone with interest.

  “Let me check. She said she’d message me with updates.” Val pulled the neckline of her dress away and reached into her bra for her phone. “Ah, the deed is done. Ellie and Stephen are engaged to be married.”

  Tiny rubbed his chin. “I still don’t understand why they needed our help. They’re both madly in love with each other already.”

  “Yes, dear heart. But poor Ellie has no self-confidence. She doesn’t feel worthy of Stephen, even though he adores her. And she worries she won’t be a good wife. Absolutely ridiculous of her to feel that way, but it was destroying her. I didn’t give her the courage rose so that she would propose to him. He already had that planned out. I gave it to her so that she would say yes.”

  Tiny cocked his brow.

  “She was going to get cold feet and say no because she thought he deserved better than her. That’s how much she loves him.”

  Tiny threw his arms up in the air. “Women. I’ve been dealing with love-matching for thousands of years, and I still don’t understand them.”

  Val kissed his forehead. “That’s what I’m here for, love muffin. We make a great team.”

  “Yes, we certainly do.” Tiny took a deep, contented sigh. “We just keep getting better and better.”

  Author’s Note

  Thank you so much for reading! I hope you had as much fun with Val, Tiny, and Cupid as I did while writing about them.

  I have a whole slew of short stories planned for this year. Approximately one per month, actually, as well as a couple novels. In fact, my next short story is due out in time for St. Patrick’s Day, hopefully March 1!

  If you’d like to keep abreast of my publications (some of them will be free!) please join my mailing list. I’ll also be offering ARCs.

  http://reneegracethompson.com

  You can also find me at

  https://www.facebook.com/ReneeGraceThompson/

  or

  https://twitter.com/ReneeGraceauth

  Serious Trouble

  Cassandra Zolotoff

  Acknowledgments

  Thank you to my husband for his unshakeable support and encouragement.

  Chapter One

  The earthly February night is dark and freezing.

  The cloud I sit on is soft, but cold like a snowdrift. It prickles my bottom with frosty needles, and I shift from side to side, rubbing my hands to warm them. Stirred by my fidgeting, the small clouds of silvery flying dust lift off my clothes in vertical swirls, boast their glitter for a second and disappear into the darkness.

  My fingers are white with cold as they grip my binoculars. I squint into the lens. The surface, sprinkled with candle-like electric lights, hides and resurfaces from behind the snow-laden clouds. The patchwork of cities, fields and forests zooms in until I recognize the town I need.

  The tip of my tongue sticks out as I attempt to be patient enough to proceed slowly. Adjusting the lens precisely. My father, Zeus himself, makes a point to educate me on the virtues of patience. If I were less of a distracted whirlwind so unfitting for his daughter, he says, my aim would be better and fewer love arrows would be lost or broken or sent to the wrong recipients. Zeus is far from a tame man, but if even he is unhappy with me, I must be seriously at fault.

  Frustration flashes across my body like lightning, and I grip the binoculars so hard they groan in protest. This is not who I am, but lately, I'm plagued by this restlessness. A longing for what I help to distribute the night before Valentine's Day.

  Love.

  Someone to care for me like I would care for them. A man to make love to until dawn and fall asleep curled up in the protection of his body. A man who would call me Artemis with no fear in his eyes.

  I sigh.

  The cloud’s slope allows my leg to swing back and forth, an unfortunate habit. The idea to help Hermes and his team of Cupids around Valentine's Day wasn't smart. So far I've brought more destruction than assistance to my brother's careful plans. Maybe I’m simply jealous of all those love-joined hearts.

  I drag my attention back to my task.

  The town’s main streets sparkle with golden and red heart-shaped lights. Purple heart garlands, embellishing restaurants and shops, sway in wintry gusts. Advertisement billboards sport hearts, flowers and chocolates, inviting people to buy Valentine day presents for their existing and prospective partners. And the snow, thick and persistent, pelts down on the streets as if protesting all this cuteness.

  I rub my eyes and adjust the rucksack on my back. One love arrow left, it hums and vibrates merrily within its confines, impatient to target the last heart on my list. Today has been brutal in how many hearts my bow sent to find their soulmates, but this last 'golden stick', as the Cupids call the love arrows, is meant to be shot tomorrow, at four in the afternoon. When the twilight ages to purple hues.

  Asking Hermes to complete my voluntary assignments early is not an option. My brother is too dogmatic to allow his carefully designed plans to change. Even the mortals understand this on an unconscious level - that's why they believe that everything happens for a reason. It does indeed, and I'm not about to trifle with Hermes's decisions.

  I reach behind my back and pull a dark blue roll of parchment out of my rucksack’s side pocket. Hermes’s Scroll of Love.

  My feet swing harder. Albeit careless, the steady motion, like the beat of a sure heart, calms me and clears my mind
.

  I shake the Scroll open and the blue runner unfolds too fast, the end disappearing somewhere below the cloud.

  "Damn," I mutter.

  I jerk my chin up and the Scroll starts rolling back slowly, clearly resisting my order. It always does.

  I grind my teeth. “I don’t like you either, you hear me?”

  The rough parchment shakes and strains in my grip, preventing me from rolling it back neatly.

  “Listen, one more assignment tomorrow and we’ll part ways, all right? You'll get back to your master and I'll swear to never help my brother again. You win.”

  The thing is dreadful. Rolling. Unrolling. Getting lost. Escaping. Messing with information by hiding the names so seamlessly, one’s bound to make a mistake and join two completely wrong hearts. But for now, it seems to listen. My words about the last assignment must have caught its attention.

  Rubbing my frozen nose, I peer at the Scroll. White numbers and geometrical charts fill the blue expanse. The glow of the faraway stars above is too weak for reading and I bring the paper closer to my face, squinting.

  A small town.

  A young guy meant to be targeted by the coffee shop.

  Hermes gave me a load of arrows, the latest additions to his list, and, consequently, exceptions. Now I’m down to the last one.

  My last assignment for this year.

  I grasp a handful of flying dust out of my pocket and let it run through my fingers.

  What is she like, his soulmate? I'd expect a complete opposite of me. My family says that I look like the Snow Queen with my long white hair and icy-blue gaze. In fact, I have been mistaken for her a few times in the past and the experience stopped me from trying to have a little taste of the mortals' daily life.

  Walking the streets.

  Meeting with friends.

  Tasting that dark drink they call coffee.

  All those little things they grumble about... Oh, riding on a bus!

  The bubbles of excitement fill my chest, and I subdue them like a little girl who stomps on dandelions in spring. The Snow Queen doesn't exist yet all those silly fairy tales that sprung to life after I was careless enough in my distant, erm, youth, are still alive.

  I peer at the chart again, trying to concentrate. It may be time to have a word with Hermes. His calculations are always correct, but his writing? Minuscule in the best terms. In the worst? I really shouldn't be getting into that.

  I swing my legs harder, growing more impatient in my attempts to decode the scribbles. The lower half of the parchment still sways freely, lost in the shadows below.

  A tall guy. Dark hair. A programmer in some IT company. His family is large, but he loves his two older sisters the most--

  A spark of golden, tail-like dust.

  A whoosh of heat.

  A mighty yank.

  A shooting star zips past me, pulling at the Scroll with the force of her fury. As ever, Hermes's propertydefies me as it follows the dying star and I, stubborn and stupid enough to hold on, am being taken with it. My butt slides off the cloud’s curvy slope and I hurl down to earth.

  The branches creak under my weight when I swing on one of them. Landing precisely didn’t work out this time thanks to the rough winds. Like a sparrow, my small frame has been thrown to the side and into the crown of an old oak tree standing in the row of others on the town’s main street.

  Through the black lace of branches,Valentine hearts scream crimson and pink. But the street is not as quiet as I thought it would be. Too many people still hang around despite the late hour.

  I grunt.

  At all cost, I have to be silent and fleeting, like a shadow, but I fail. Just like I failed to catch up with the Scroll. As we hit the lower clouds, the damn thing was ripped out of my grip and, for all I know, flung to the ends of the earth. Maybe I should follow beyond, too. Hermes’s wrath is not… pleasant.

  How am I to complete the task now? I don't even know my target's name or his mate’s details. All I have is a handful of hours to find the Scroll.

  What a disaster.

  I clench my teeth and swing on the branch again, trying to throw my leg over the other one, nearer the trunk.

  No flying. Hide in the branches and rest for a bit. Study the place of tomorrow’s targeting… But hide first.

  My customary catsuit is not fit for displaying to mortals anyway. Seamless, it glitters silver on my body and, at first sight, I may look naked. Even my short white jacket wouldn’t be able to help me seem…decent to passers-by.

  I roll my eyes, my fingers slipping on the frosted branch. The rucksack drags me down, pulling at my sleeve.

  I curse.

  Onto that branch. Now. Before anyone sees you.

  The romantic snowfall quickly turns to blizzard.

  Giving up on swinging, I flex my frozen fingers against the rough bark and inch closer to the trunk. The small arboreal spikes pull at my hair and try to find every opportunity to prick me in the eye.

  "Oh gods," I mutter, watching passers-by stroll dangerously close to my tree.

  Can't they move faster? Isn't it cold enough?

  The majority of them are the couples, though. Hugging. Showering each other with innocent pecks on the cheek, or kisses, too hot for an audience. Cold is of no consequence to them.

  Distant male laughter drifts through the howling wind, a group of guys erupting with infectious cheer.

  I grab onto the next part of the branch, but my hands are too small to encompass its gradual thickness. My palms slip off an icy patch, and I plummet down again, heavy clumps of snow landing on top of me.

  I squeeze my eyes shut and curse under my breath the way my father does, all thunder and lightning collected in a few words. My hands search for purchase as I try to manoeuvre myself out of the snowdrift without attracting attention. Frozen beyond white, my fingers are numb. My palms sting. How I miss Hephaestus's furnaces' heat--

  Something hard bumps against my temple, planting my face into the snowdrift again. My vision explodes with millions of stars.

  "Oh crap." A hand grabs my shoulder while another one tries to unearth my face from under the snow. "Are you all right?"

  I gasp and splutter, my arms flapping in the air, attempting to free myself from the snow and a mortal whose grip is way too close to my rucksack.

  "Shit. Say something. Are you hurt?" Large male hands grab me under my arms and the air swishes in my ears as I'm sat upright.

  I shake my head and the hands go on wiping the snow off my face.

  Finally, I peel one eye open and meet a frantic gaze. As green as the lakes in Greece.

  "Answer me, dammit. Do you need a doctor or something?" Dark eyebrows knit together under the rim of a black beanie, crusted with snow.

  I open another eye, my breath stalling somewhere in my heart's area. "No doctor, thanks. I'm f-fine."

  Did I just stutter?

  "Jeez. You scared the shit out of me. I didn't mean to kick the ball that hard. Or to kick at all." He jerks his chin towards a rugby ball lying nearby.

  Crouched in front of me, his large frame is covered in rugby kit, the muddy material stretched over shoulders that could compete with Hephaestus's. His eyes are piercing, studying me with a mixture of concern and wonder.

  "Is she all right, man?" Someone calls over and he raises his hand, thumb up. A group of four other men idle on the opposite side of the road, feet restless in the snow.

  His attention returns to me. "Can I help you up?"

  I shake my head so vigorously the long strands of my hair stick to my wet cheeks. The mortals are not to be trusted. Being away from them for centuries, I've no proper social skills to fit in, to communicate on the level where I wouldn't be taken for an alien. Plus, Zeus forbids his daughters to mess with mortal men. And I have my precious arrow to protect. And my lost Scroll to find--

  "Look, don't be afraid. We're not some gang of hooligans." He waves to his friends, motioning for them to move on.

  They sco
wl for a minute.

  "How about those beers, Jake?" One shouts across the road, making a passer-by jump out of his way.

  "I'll pass. You go on." His voice makes my heart hop up and down. Almost as deep as Hades's caves. Full of that perfect rugged maleness Venus keeps searching for and never finds.

  A possessive wave of heat fills my veins.

  I clear my throat. Time to go.

  Jake's hand shoots out, steadying me by my elbow as I try to get up. "Wait. I'll help you."

  "I'm fine." The snow cascades off me as I stand up, unwilling yet leaning into his support. His hand is too warm to let go of yet.

  Our eyes remain locked as we rise to our feet. His - growing in wonder by the second, looking me over with a certain degree of hunger. Mine - probably bulging in an attempt to memorise every detail of his face. Dark eyebrows, contrasted with green eyes. A nose, slightly crooked to the side, a sign of a past trauma. Lips full and begging for a touch.

  His features are too perfect for a mortal, and I lean closer, trying to detect the vibe of divinity.

  Nothing.

  The only vibration is in my rucksack, the arrow moaning to find her owner.

  And Jake still towers over me.

  A streak of dirt marks his cheekbone as if chiselled out by Michelangelo himself. I used to watch the master work on his pieces. None of them could contend with this mortal's perfection.

  A fresh gust of wind takes my breath away and wakes me up from this weird dreaminess. It nearly blows my small jacket off my shoulders, eager to take my rucksack, too.

  In awe and cold, my teeth begin to chatter.

  "Hey, you're freezing. Come on, let me get you a cup of coffee." He looks down at me and smiles. A line of straight white teeth flash in the shadows. "I promise not to bite."

  My mouth wants to stretch in an answering smile, but my clouded mind fires off all kinds of warnings. His beauty bites already.

  "No!" I almost shout, then look around and clear my throat. "Thank you, but I have to go."

 
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